Ministry to Those Suffering Domestic Abuse

Ministry to Those Suffering Domestic Abuse

We now come to the final article in this series. Here we will discuss hurdles victims face on the path to healing, faulty and harmful approaches to "helping" those who suffer abuse, and a few suggestions on how to minister the victims of domestic abuse. 

Tragically, at least one in four women experiences violence from her partner at some point in her adult life. And tragically, that rate is no different among Christian homes and homes of other faiths or no faith. In fact, research shows that Christian women stay far longer in the abusive context and in far more severe abuse than their non-Christian counterparts.[1] 

So if you are a leader in ministry, statistics tell us there are people under your care who have suffered - or are currently suffering - from domestic violence. If you have tried to approach a church about your experience with abuse and been disappointed, you know firsthand that many churches are woefully under-equipped to deal with domestic violence. This is particularly tragic because part of God's mission for the church is to proclaim God's healing and to seek justice for those it encounters.  And this series is aimed to help inform you in doing just that for women in abusive situations. 

Hurdles to Healing

There are numerous difficulties facing victims of domestic abuse on the path to healing. First, there is the internal struggle of victim's not identifying their experience as abuse and/or passively accepting abuse as their lot in life. Psychologist Lenore Walker, in treating patients who have experienced abuse, make this very point. She writes, "Women with strong religious backgrounds often are less likely to believe that violence against them is wrong."[3]  Abused women may try to rationalize their suffering by believing that it is "God's will" or "part of God's plan for my life" or "God's way of teaching me a lesson."

According to Carol Adams, victims may believe one of two things when it comes to divine deliverance from abuse. First, they may believe that neither God, the world, nor the church protect the weak. Second, they may believe that God, the world, and the church do protect the weak - but only if they are deserving. The result is that a victim often feels either abandoned by God, or that she is being punished by God.[4] 

We must address the concern that one is undeserving of deliverance and protection. In one sense, this is true - it is the very nature of grace to be undeserved. Because we are all sinful people, none of the grace and deliverance we receive is given for the reason that we deserve it. Yet it is freely given. And at the same time, we can do nothing to merit this gift of grace.

For example, Adam and Eve continue under the shelter of God's care after the fall, even though their behavior has done nothing to deserve such care. The question of deserved or undeserved is irrelevant when it comes to grace. And this, because we are all sinful people, is the best of news. It means that God will never withhold His deliverance on account of your behavior. It also means that there is nothing you can do to "earn" such deliverance--and yet, it is freely given anyway.

The second hurdle to healing victims face is the twisted words used by abusers to excuse their abuse. Abusive men often take the biblical text and distort it to support their right to abuse. Men who abuse frequently misuse Ephesians 5:22 - "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord" - to justify their behavior. But here Paul's words are taken out of context. The entire passage (Eph. 5:21-33) in fact teaches the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21). Additionally, the word submit does not mean to obey, and it is always a chosen act. Submission cannot be forced, it must be chosen - and it must be mutual in this mysterious dance of marriage.

Harmful Approaches

Tragically, the church can also be a place where abuse is enabled by well-meaning but woefully misinformed clergy. Lindsey and I have known of clergy who have said to victims of abuse, "Jesus' wounds were redemptive - they saved the world. Your wounds can be redemptive and save your relationship." Similarly, we know of pastors who have counseled abused women: "If you just submit to your husband, even if he is abusive, God will honor your obedience and the abuse would either stop or God would give you the grace to endure the abuse."

Some have even misapplied 1 Peter 1:6 to the context of abuse: "In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials." This verse has been grossly misused to tell women they should accept abuse and use the suffering as an opportunity to grow their faith.

It is true that people suffer in all kinds of ways. It is also true that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection paint a picture of suffering that leads to glory. This undergirds a central theme found throughout the New Testament that suffering can be redemptive. In fact, Paul says that "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12), and he told the first churches that "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Certainly suffering has the potential to be purifying and strip us of ingrained attitudes and habits that lead us away from God. It also has the potential to drive us deeper into trust and dependence upon God.

But the problem with the above arguments for staying within abuse is that God never calls us into violence if it can be avoided. The Bible repeatedly provides examples of people crying out to God for deliverance from suffering and oppression (Israel in Egypt and during the time of the judges). It also shows people actively looking to avoid suffering, like David fleeing from King Saul, Esther and her people in Persia, the woman caught in adultery and others. We are not called to passively accept every form of unjust pain that comes our way--especially not abuse. Scripture does not encourage people to endure avoidable suffering and it does encourage them to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Scripture shows us a complex and multifaceted view of human suffering, and so we must not be simplistic in our counsel to ourselves and to others who face unjust suffering. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking that if a victim decides to take steps to end their abuse, they are being a bad Christian. 

The Church's Message 

The Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to "the least of these" - the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. By upholding the dignity of all human life as the image of God and tangibly expressing the biblical ethic of personhood that flows from it, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, many victims who reach out to churches in times of need receive blame, disbelief, suspicious questions, bad advice, platitudes, and shallow theology instead of care and compassion. Rather than pat answers, victims need practical victim advocacy full of biblical and theological depth.

Churches have a great opportunity to offer victims of violence love, safety, patience, and counseling. Caring for and responding to women at risk is an opportunity for Christians to take the gospel to those who are most in need, provide an alternative community centered on Jesus to the marginalized and oppressed, and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to the epidemic of violence against women is a way the church can follow the charge of James to practice "pure religion" (James 1:27) by caring for vulnerable women.

Here are eight ways your church can reflect Jesus' heart for women at risk:

  1. Know that God cares for those at risk and hates violence. Throughout the Bible we see an unrelenting concern of God for those who are weak, powerless, and oppressed. The complement of God's care for the oppressed is His hatred of violence. "Violence" is one of the first words used to describe the decay of the world after sin entered into it (Gen. 6:11-12). The Bible contains many examples of God's displeasure with violence, as well as the way God saves His people from it (see Ps. 11:5; Prov. 21:7; Zeph. 1:9; Mal. 2:16; Ps. 18:48; Isa. 60:18).
  2. Stand with the vulnerable and powerless. God calls His people to resist those who use their power to oppress and harm others ( Jer. 22:3).
  3. Believe the women; don't blame them. Blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization, because victims who experience negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that being believed and being listened to by others are crucial to victims' healing.
  4. Respond graciously, offering comfort, encouragement, and protection. Also respond with tangible, practical care. Spiritual and emotional support needs to be accompanied by actual deeds
  5. Get informed and inform others about the prevalence of women at risk. They can be found not only around the world but also right under our noses, in our cities and neighborhoods, and in our churches and small groups. The prevalence is staggering.
  6. Learn about the effects of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of abuse. The only thing more staggering than the prevalence of abuse toward women is the acute damage done to them. Trauma is not only done to but also experienced by victims. The internal and deeply personal places of a victim's heart, will, and emotions need a clear application of the gospel of redemption, along with tangible expressions of love.
  7. Clearly communicate the hope and healing for victims that is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the message victims hear most often is self-heal, self-love, and self-help. The church's message is not self-help but the grace of God. Grace does not command "Heal thyself!" but declares "You will be healed!" God's one-way love replaces self-love and is the true path to healing.
  8. Get involved with the issue of violence against women. This can include addressing the issue in sermons, praying about it in corporate prayer, and working toward the prevention of abuse together with community and national organizations.
As we react to the pain and suffering of women at risk, we should meditate on Jesus' love and care for women. But God's love should do more than just make us feel better - it should lead us to imitate His care for children, take action against evil toward the vulnerable, and pray for God's peace and salvation to cover the earth.

What Does the Gospel Proclaim?

Trusting Jesus isn't a faint hope in generic spiritual sentiments but is banking our hope and future on the real historical Jesus who lived, died, and rose from the dead. Grace is available because Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death and rose from death. Jesus responds to victims' pain and past. The gospel engages our life with all its pain, shame, rejection, lostness or bewilderment, sin, and death.

So now, to your pain, the gospel says, "You will be healed." To your shame, the gospel says, "You can now come to God in confidence." To your rejection, the gospel says, "You are accepted!" To your lostness, the gospel says, "You are found and I won't ever let you go." To your sin, the gospel says, "You are forgiven and God declares you pure and righteous." To your death, the gospel says, "You were dead, but now you are alive." 

The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace.

Justin is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lindsey, are authors of: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic ViolenceRid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. Justin has written or edited numerous books: Know the Heretics (2014), Know the Creeds and Councils (2014), On the Grace of GodActs: A 12-Week Study, For the Worldand Christian Theologies of Scripture


[1] Susan Hall, "The Theology of Domestic Violence," Views from the Edge (Seattle: Mars Hill Graduate School, January 2006), p. 1. 

[2] Ron Clark, Setting the Captives Free (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2005), p. xxi. As Clark puts it, "Domestic violence is not only a crime against humanity, it is a sin against God. The community of faith is called to protect victims and prevent the abuse of power. 'Open your mouth for those who cannot speak to bring justice to the weak. Open your mouth and judge righteously, and bring justice to the oppressed and poor' (Proverbs 31:8-9). The faith community is called to represent God and call men and women to love, compassion, gentleness, and respect for themselves and each other. The community of faith must deal with domestic violence because it has penetrated our families, our neighborhoods, our community, our churches, and our world. Domestic violence crosses all racial, ethnic, cultural, social, and gender boundaries and is destroying families, children, businesses, friends, and the structure of our society. Yet a greater crime exists. It is the crime of apathy and silence. To ignore this violence and humiliation is to ignore the voice of God. To pat the victims on the head and minimize their pain is to slap God in the face. To go to our homes and sleep at night, without being compelled to act, while others live in terror and fear is ignoring our duty to God and our neighbor."

[3] Quoted in Hall, "Theology of Domestic Violence," pp. 1-2

[4] Carol J. Adams, Woman Battering (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1994), p. 105.